Chicago Dancers United will host the 26th annual Dance for Life Chicago gala and performance event on Saturday, Aug. 19. at the Auditorium Theatre.
Dance for Life Chicago began in 1991 as a rather DIY performance fundraiser with the aim of assisting dancers in the Chicago community affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At the time, founding dancer Keith Elliott did not have the financial resources to significantly help his community but he certainly knew how to organize and perform a sold out show. Year after year the successful benefit performance not only packed houses and filled coffers, it united audiences and artists in the fight for and celebration of life.
This year Chicago Dancers United ( a nonprofit organization ) welcomed a new executive director, Phil Reynolds. Reynolds is no stranger to arts administration or the Chicago dance scene, as he spent 17 years as the executive director of The Dance Center of Columbia College. In his new role, Reynolds is charged with continuing the momentum of Dance for Life's 25th-anniversary season as well as envisioning possibilities for the future of Chicago Dancers United.
Reynolds is not making any sudden movements in his first year but he is definitely paying attention to opportunities for broader outreach within the dance community and for potential partnership building in the years to come.
"Year one, I'm going to listen. I'm gonna learn," he told Windy City Times. "I'm not going to come in with a broom and suggest sweeping reforms. Year two, I'd like to take some timid steps and try out a few things. By year three or four I'd really like to be driving an agenda."
One of these "agendas" is making sure that dance professionals in the community understand that the Dancers' Fund ( one of two main beneficiaries of Dance for Life Chicago along with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ) is accessible to them. "One of the things that we really want to do is communicate better to the field that the fund is available," Reynolds said. "The guidelines and the parameters of the fund have intentionally been expanded beyond someone who may have tested HIV positive to dance professionals dealing with other matters; women's health, addiction, whatever it might be."
"The Dancers' Fund is intended to provide financial support for individuals in the dance industry here in Chicago who are experiencing a health or some other kind of life issue that's impacting their ability to work. It is not just for dancers. It's for anyone legitimately working in the dance industry here. And," Reynolds added, "generally grants are between $2,000-$4,000, so that's pretty cool."
Given the aggressive instability of the United States healthcare system, this is good information to know. Combined with the rampant restructuring of traditional dance companies toward predominantly project-to-project based creation models, our systems seem to be shifting in their ability to sustainably support the health and well being of most dancers and dance professionals. Chicago Dancers United helps the community fill those systemic gaps.
On top of all that, they put on a good show. Along with performances by long time partner companies Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet, this year's program includes a world premiere from Randy Duncan, work from Visceral Dance Chicago, Jessica Miller Tomlinson Choreography and the exciting return of "In the Meantime," a collaborative piece by the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater and Trinity Irish Dance Company.
Claudia Pizarro, the majestic First Dancer with Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, is thrilled to return for her second year in Dance for Life Chicago. "Oh, my gosh. … I get to be around all these dancers. And I am able to show my work to everyone. Even though we share the same passion it is very hard to see each other's work," Pizarro said.
There certainly is a level of segregation between genres in town although that is not an affliction particular to Chicago; there is little crossover in most dance cities. But, true to its name, Chicago Dancers United provides an opportunity for these companies to come together, at least for one night, to support one another. The significance of the cause is one of the highlights for Pizarro since giving back to her community is a top priority in her life.
"I'm from Mexico, right?" Pizarro said. "So, every time I get the opportunity to help somebody from my town, whether it's with money or clothes, because there are people with needs, I love it. Why? Because I'm helping people from my own culture. So, for me, a dancer is the same. They are somebody from my own culture. Why? Because we share the same passion. Even if we do different movements, we are the same. We communicate with our bodies… Being able to help dancers with need, I feel so blessed. The fact that I'm contributing to that, it's everything."
Given the success and community-building of Dance for Life Chicago, Reynolds is considering adding additional programming to the Chicago Dancers United bandwidth. "There might be an opportunity to, over the course of a couple of years, hold some ancillary events under Chicago Dancers United…I'm not sure what that means right now. If that's a different kind of performance, I don't know. We'll dive into that," Reynolds said.
For now, let's pony up and enjoy the show.
For tickets and information about Dance for Life Chicago, visit ChicagoDancersUnited.org .